What the Orthodox should expect from Zelensky
What policy will be pursued by the new head of state in relation to the Church.
On having lost the presidential election, Petro Poroshenko called Vladimir Zelensky and congratulated him on the victory. Ukraine is waiting for the inauguration of the new President. What will the new government bring in relations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?
The Orthodox have suffered so much from Poroshenko, especially in the last year of his presidency, that many now hope for dramatic improvements in the attitude of the state to the UOC. On the other hand, many fear that nothing good from the change of the head of state can be expected and the persecutions of the Church, begun by Poroshenko, will continue. How reasonable are these points of view and what can the Orthodox expect from the new President?
According to Zelensky himself, he is "a cat in a bag." Using this expression, Poroshenko during the debate on April 19 tried to humiliate Zelensky and show people that they vote for the man who is an absolute mystery. How will he act as a president, what priorities will he outline, what policy will he pursue? Nobody knows that.
All the words spoken by the candidates on the eve of the elections can be safely forgotten almost in any country and in relation to any personalities. As popular wisdom says, a man tells the biggest lies before his wedding, after a hunt and during an election campaign. Therefore, all pre-election pledges of Zelensky, as well as his slogans and interviews, should be treated “cum grano salis”.
Zelensky is a mystery even to himself. Even he himself does not know how and what he will do being the president. Even more unknown is what he will actually be able to do or what his political associates and opponents will allow him to do.
We should not forget that, according to the Constitution, Ukraine is not a presidential-parliamentary, but a parliamentary-presidential republic. The Verkhovna Rada has more influence on the Cabinet of Ministers and, consequently, on state policy than the president. With the advent of the presidency of a new man, both the Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman continue their work. The next parliamentary elections should be held only in the autumn and by this time all political realignments can change drastically.
True though, there is a very high probability that Zelensky will be able to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada and call early elections. Most likely, he will do just like that, since it will not be possible to keep the high rating that he has today until the autumn. During the six months of his work as a president, Zelensky will surely take actions for which he can be criticized. In six months, the people will definitely associate all their dissatisfaction with life with President Zelensky just as today they associate it with President Poroshenko.
Zelensky is a mystery even to himself. Even he himself does not know how and what he will do being the president.
This means that “The Servant of the People” party and those political forces that associate themselves with Zelensky will not receive in the parliamentary elections the support they can get now, on the wave of people's hopes for change for the better. Therefore, Zelensky and his political force have a vital interest in ensuring that elections to the Verkhovna Rada take place ahead of time.
And if this really happens and “pro-Ze” forces win in this election, if a “Zelensky-customized” coalition is formed in parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers consists of its supporters, only then can we say that President Zelensky will have the opportunity to implement his political program in practice. The real program, not the one that was announced during the election campaign.
If we analyze the words and facts known today, we can make an unequivocal conclusion: Vladimir Zelensky has never declared his sympathy for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Instead, he spoke very positively about the OCU. Let us cite a quote from his debate with Poroshenko at the Olympic NSC on April 19:
“Concerning the Tomos. This is a victory for Ukraine but it seems to me that this is a victory, first of all, for Filaret, who had fought for the Ukrainian Church even before you (Petro Poroshenko – Ed.) became the president. Back in the days when you were a parishioner of the Moscow Patriarchate.”
The following messages can be read in this short statement:
• Tomos is a victory for Ukraine. Tomos is assessed positively and therefore, everything associated with Tomos is assessed positively: both the OCU, Filaret Denisenko, Epiphany Dumenko, unlawful transfers of the UOC temples to the OCU, and the infringement of the rights of believers of the canonical Church, etc;
• Tomos is Filaret's victory. Filaret, therefore, is not a schismatic, not the culprit of the hostility and lawlessness in the religious sphere but an honored person for Ukraine;
• The struggle of Filaret for Tomos, which really has a long history, is also evaluated positively.
• To be a parishioner of the Moscow Patriarchate (i.e. the UOC) is a direct reproach toward Poroshenko. Consequently, belonging to the UOC is evaluated negatively; otherwise, it would not be possible to reproach anyone.
Irina Venediktova, Zelensky’s advisor, also expressed sympathy for the OCU: “Tomos is the most important thing for our self-identity. Therefore, these are things which no one will not only encroach but will support with all the capacity that the state has.”
Of course, one should not exaggerate all these statements but the fact remains: the Ze-team expresses sympathy for the Tomos but not for the UOC.
The factor of businessman Igor Kolomoisky also testifies to the general mood against the UOC under the new government. We will not repeat Poroshenko’s election mantra that Zelensky is a puppet of Kolomoisky. However, it is undoubted that with the victory of Zelensky, the influence of Kolomoisky on the policy of Ukraine and on the state of affairs in general will increase significantly. And if you remember that the main mouthpiece of Kolomoisky, the TV channel “1 + 1” is the channel that most of all slings mud at the UOC, it becomes quite obvious that the new government will favor the schismatics and treat the UOC badly.
But a much more important question than the way the new government is going to treat various confessions is the question – what the new government is going to do, what its policy in the religious sphere is going to be. Here we can assume the following.
“Concerning the Tomos. This is a victory for Ukraine, but it seems to me that this is a victory, first of all, for Filaret.”
Firstly, the new government will pay much less attention to religion than Poroshenko’s team. Zelensky will be faced with much more urgent tasks, on which he will have to concentrate first of all. These tasks are as follows:
• formation of the pro-presidential majority in parliament (most likely through early elections);
• the appointment of a new Cabinet of Ministers;
• solving the conflict in the Donbas, or at least finding ways to resolve it;
• receiving regular tranches from the International Monetary Fund or seeking other sources of financing;
• building relationships with major foreign policy players: Europe, America, Russia;
• providing Ukraine with energy resources. In the light of Russia's recent ban on oil and oil products export to Ukraine, this may in general become a matter of survival for our country.
All this simply will not allow Zelensky to continue the religious policy of his predecessor with the same intensity. And for Poroshenko himself, this whole venture with the Tomos was basically a pre-election technology. And this technology, admittedly, failed. The grantee of the Tomos, Petro Poroshenko, who was put by Phanar on a par with the holy Prince Vladimir the Great, the Baptist of Russia, lost miserably to the comedian Zelensky, the clown in Old Russian terminology. Vladimir Zelensky seems not that stupid not to take Poroshenko’s mistakes into account. Intervention in church affairs does not push up a rating. Now the elections being over, no one really needs all this hubbub around the Tomos and the creation of the new religious structure.
Therefore, with a high degree of probability, the pressure on the UOC will weaken. The central government will no longer send directives to places demanding the transfer of the UOC communities to the OCU. The theme of the transferring the Ukrainian Lavras to the dissenters will also lose its relevance. Zelensky will be just busy with other concerns. Although active supporters of the OCU may try to continue the persecution of the UOC with the tacit consent of the new government but the second factor will play against it.
Secondly, for V. Zelensky himself the issue of religion is a matter more personal than public or state. In an interview with RBC-Ukraine, he said, “There are things that we never discuss at the table of our family. My father taught me so. I never discuss them with anyone. The issue of religion is number one. We never discuss things that split families and society. I never do that. But I believe in God.”
If Zelensky truly understands that state intervention in the affairs of religious organizations splits society, then he is unlikely to welcome such interference. As a president, he will be interested in the elimination of any conflicts within the state, not in their escalation. Moreover, “hands-off” approach to the religious sphere responds to his inner convictions.
Another positive response, which was heard in an interview with RBC-Ukraine, was the answer to the question about demonstrative visits of divine services on major religious holidays, which all previous presidents practiced. Zelensky said that he was not going to attend churches "on camera": "I think this is my personal, internal affair. I do not want to broadcast this to the whole world. Because my conversation with God I prefer to have one-on-one ”.
This is welcome. Perhaps, the demonstration tour of the presidential couple to the churches of various denominations will finally end, followed by counting the minutes that the head of state and his wife spent in a particular temple.
Thirdly, Zelensky positions himself as a true European. So, he will, or at least try, to implement European values in Ukraine: human rights, rule of law, independent legal proceedings, democracy, etc.
It can be assumed that under President Zelensky, there will be less lawlessness in the religious sphere. The courts will decide in favor of the UOC communities, the police will investigate incidents of violence against believers, etc. And all this will happen not because Zelensky will support the UOC but because all the actions of the authorities in relation to the UOC under Petro Poroshenko were not just lawless, but outspokenly lawless. And when Poroshenko still had full presidential power, heads of territorial communities, heads of local state administrations, and law enforcement officials still violated the law to please the President and his team.
But it was only for Zelensky to gain twice as many votes as Poroshenko in the first round of the presidential election, as it became clear that there was practically no chance for the latter to remain in the chair of the head of state. So, it became pointless for officials to violate the law for the benefit of the Tomos-grantee Poroshenko.
“The issue of religion is number one. We never discuss things that split families and society. I never do that. But I believe in God. ”
So, in the aftermath of the first round of elections, court decisions in favor of the UOC rained down. The courts oblige the police and the prosecutor's office to investigate violations of the rights of believers, enter the relevant data in the Unified State Register of Pre-Trial Investigations, and on April 5, 2019, the Kiev District Administrative Court ruled that the actions of parliament speaker Andrei Parubiy were unlawful in connection with the adoption of the draft law on the forced renaming of the UOC. Recently, on April 19, 2019, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine has opened proceedings on the case of renaming religious organizations, which was sought by the UOC and some of the MPs.
All this opens up a window of opportunity for the UOC. Taking advantage of the lack of motivation for officials to violate the law, one can try to get through the courts or by submitting complaints to the state administration bodies to restore the violated rights to freedom of religion. It is possible that after a while this window will close. This can happen if President Zelensky appoints people to government posts who will strive to destroy the UOC and drive everyone into a single pseudo-religious organization – the OCU.
We repeat that today's decisions of the courts in favor of the UOC are not connected with the support of the Church by the new government (there is no such support), but because the actions of the authorities under President Poroshenko were overtly and unambiguously illegal.
Thus, the question “what should the Orthodox expect from President Zelensky?” can be answered like this: the attitude anticipated is negative rather than positive, but the actions are legal rather than illegal. In any case, the Church should not rely on the state and seek its support. The Church must rely on its own inner spiritual foundation. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3, 11).
But the Church, of course, has the right to demand that the state observe the norms of its own laws and the Constitution regarding the rights of believers. The time will tell how it will be exercised by the new government, while the Orthodox now have more important things to do: the Church is living through the Passion Week, preparing to prayerfully experience the last days of the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ and to celebrate the Bright Feast of His Resurrection.